The sudden revival of the United Mine Workers of America in 1933 was a remarkable story. In late 1932 the UMWA was practically defunct, yet by the fall of 1933 it was in the strongest position in its history. Perhaps the best historical narrative of the revival of UMWA was penned in lyrical form by an African-American former coal miner called “Uncle George” Jones. Jones had started working as a miner in 1889 at age seventeen but in 1914 blindness forced him out of the Alabama mines. Long known for his singing in church choirs, down in the mines, and on the picket line. Jones’ “This Is What the Union Done” not only expressed the miners’ sense of the role that Roosevelt and Lewis played in the union revival; it also beautifully captures a sense of the transformation when miners “got the union back again!”Listen to Audio:
“This What the Union Done”
In nineteen hundred an' thirty-three,
When Mr. Roosevelt took his seat,
He said to President John L. Lewis,"In union we must be.
Come, let us work together,
Ask God to lead the plan,
By this time another year
We’ll have the union back again."
For the union we must stan',
It’s the only organization
Protect the laborin' man.
Boys, it makes the women happy,
Our children clap their hands,
To see the beefsteak an' the good po’k chops,
Steamin‘ in those fryin’ pans.
When the President and John L. Lewis,
Had signed their decree,
They called for Mitch an' Raney—
Dalrymple make it three: "Go down in Alabama,
Organize ev’ry laborin' man,
Spread the news all over the lan':
We got the union back again!"
There’s one law [of] President Roosevelt,
That made the operators mad:
Gave all the men the right to organize,
Join the union of their choice.
When the President had passed this law,
We all did shout for joy,
When he said no operator, sheriff, or boss,
Shouldn’t bother the union boys.
In nineteen hundred an' thirty-two
We was sometimes sad an' blue,
Traveling round from place to place,
Trying to find some work to do.
If we’re successful to find a job,
The wages was so small,
We could scarcely live in the summertime—
Almost starved in the fall.
Befo' we got our union back,
It’s very sad to say,
Old blue shirts and overalls,
Were the topic of the day.
They was so full of patches,
An' so badly torn,
Our wives had to sew for 'bout a hour,
Befo' they could be worn.
Now when our union men walks out,
Got the good clothes on their backs,
Crepe de chine and the fine silk shirts,
And bran' new Miller block hats;
Fine silk socks an' the Florsheim shoes,
They’re glitterin‘ ’gainst the sun,
Got dollars in their pockets, smokin' good cigars—
Boys, this what the union done.
Befo' we got our union back,
Our wives was always mad,
When they went out to church,
A print dress was all they had.
But since we got our union back,
They’re happier all the while,
Silk en' satin of ev’ry kind,
To meet with ev’ry style.
Source: Uncle George Jones, “This Is What the Union Done,”Sung by Uncle George Jones, recorded 1940 by George Korson and available on Songs and Ballads of the Bituminous Miners, (AFS L60). Courtesy of American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.